Thinking of suicide? Read me

takingthemaskoff

“You see the giant and the shepherd in the valley and Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and the glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose than we can ever imagine.”

 -Malcolm Gladwell

 

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I survived a suicide attempt, spent years in rehab centers, jails, psych hospitals. Now I have worked as a staff, and at times as a supervisor at these type of facilities.

However my friend, he did not. This is what suicide looks like. This is him after hanging himself, right before he died. February 25th 2010.

 

The difference between us is nothing except our resources. He grew up in rough environment, by that I mean school, neighborhood, friends, and life experiences.

I try to preach getting to know each patient…

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Maybe It Is, Maybe It Isn’t

When I sat down at the keyboard to type tonight, I went totally blank. I had no ideas whatsoever. So I did what I usually do when this happens: I typed the word “depression” into the Google News search and sifted through the results.

Two stories sort of piqued my interest, even though they were fairly different in nature. The first came from 99.9 WBUR in Boston. According to a study by Boston economist Paul Greenberg, major depression is costing the American economy $210.5 billion a year. That number was $83.1 billion in the year 2000. The study speculated that the tremendous increase in cases of depression (particularly in those 50 or older) could have been sparked by the recent economic recession in the U.S.

The second was an opinion piece written for the New York Times by Hilary Jacobs Hendel, titled “It’s Not Always Depression.” In the piece, Hendel describes her work with a patient named Brian. Brian had basically been through every type of depression treatment imaginable, with the exception of electroshock therapy, which he did not want to do. Hendel eventually zeroed in on Brian’s chronic shame, developed from a childhood of emotional neglect. Once she was able to do that, she began the process of helping Brian experience emotions again and reducing the shame. After meeting twice a week for four years, Brian finally reached a point of recovery.

There has been lots of talk lately about how depression is a disease. A popular analogy these days is to compare depression with other diseases, such as asthma or cancer. In fact, there was a cartoon circulating around the internet not long ago titled “If Physical Diseases Were Treated Like Mental Illness” which puts this comparison in visual form. To an extent, it is an apt comparison; major depression is not something one just “gets over” usually, even though a great many people think recovery is simply a matter of will power.

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What worries me, though, is that to call depression a “disease” is a fairly one-dimension description of it. It makes it sound like you can just pop an aspirin in the morning and alleviate all the symptoms the rest of the day. Indeed, I think many people have this mindset already. “If I can just find the right antidepressant, I will get better.” Well, in Brian’s case, he had taken just about every antidepressant known to man, and he was still nearly comatose. He had been treated for the disease, but he was far from being cured.

Depression is a sum of parts. It may be fueled by shame or anxiety or physical illness or guilt or any number of other factors. Everyone has a lifetime of experiences they bring into the arena with depression. Granted, in some instances, the cause of depression can be more chemical in nature, and medication can improve a person’s mood drastically. In most cases, though, without some type of therapy, a person will likely not ever reach a place of full recovery (if that is even possible with depression). Experiences that have shaped a person’s way of thinking must be reckoned with.

Greenberg’s study does actually point out how the word “depression” actually encompasses a great many mental and mood disorders. The headlines, though, always trumpet the word “depression” and nothing else. There is so much more to it than just that. If we don’t understand this, the dollar amounts in Greenberg’s next report may reach the stars.

An Open Letter To You

openletterThis is for you.

I owe you a giant apology.

I have lied to you. I have hidden things from you.

I have stolen from you. I have taken things that did not belong to me.

I have denied the truth when it suited me. I have hidden because I did not want to face reality.

I have hurt you beyond measure. I have no excuse for this.

Why have I done all these things? Simple: I am selfish. I am so absorbed in my own head and my own life that I failed to see beyond the parameters of my own existence. I loved you, but it was within the confines of my own space. I wanted to help you, but it was always with an eye on what I could get out of it. Even now, as I type this, notice how many times I refer to myself.

And who are you? You are the person who trusted me. You are the person who believed in me. You are the person who loved me. You are the person who encouraged me. You could be a great number of people. You know who you are.

I say this to you: I am sorry.

I realize that you have absolutely no reason to forgive me for any of this. I was even so bold as to point out the splinter in your eye when there was a huge plank in mine. I can only beg your forgiveness and try to remind you that beneath all this ugliness is a person you once cared for. He is still here. I ask you to give him another chance.

Much of what I did, I thought I did for you. It was always through the lens of me, though. For us to work, it has to be us. I cannot be untruthful with you anymore. I cannot place my needs above yours. I cannot doubt myself and throw up walls to distract from the real issues at hand. In short, I can never benefit you so long as I am so wrapped up in me.

I am writing this to you because whether you were aware of it or not, I damaged something between us. I hope it can be repaired, but I have to accept that it may never be what it was before. I can only move on now and attempt to regain your trust. You are what is important to me now. I have seen the damage I can inflict. I am sick of me.

This is for you.

Obsession With The Beast

“Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee, as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

moby dickI have attempted to read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick three times in my life. None of those times occurred while I was in school. Somehow, even as an English major in college, it was never an assignment in any class I was in. I obtained a copy of the book for myself years ago when I worked for a used college textbook warehouse. I’m not sure why I felt as if I needed to have it then. It just seemed important somehow.

I say that I have “attempted” to read Moby Dick three times in my life because I have never actually finished it. In fact, I’ve never even gotten that far into the book. It’s not an easy read, and it is very, very long. I think what keeps me coming back to this literary classic is the character of Captain Ahab. Or, at least, the idea of Captain Ahab – a man so blinded by his obsession with a gigantic sperm whale that he eventually allows the very thing he has been pursuing to literally drag him down to his death.

Over the past two years, I’ve been reading a lot about depression. I have a real passion to understand this beast. I would eventually like to help people escape from it. I sometimes feel as if it has stolen large chunks of my life from me. There are times, though, when I wonder if I really want to escape it. It has been with me so long, I am not sure how to live without it. Sometimes I’m not only not sure if I can get better, I’m not even sure if I have the desire to get better.

I have gained a ton of useful knowledge on the topic of depression from all the reading I’ve done and the counseling I’ve received. In a weird way, I actually enjoy learning about it. It helps to unravel many of the mysteries of my life I’ve never been able to figure out. I like to hear people’s stories, even though some of them do not necessarily have happy endings. I’m fascinated by how our own minds can turn on us, warping how we perceive our own realities. I’ve become this sort of morose geek, I guess.

More than once, though, in the process of writing this blog, reading all those books, and talking about depression with anyone who wanted to strike up a discussion about it, I have been confronted with the following question: Do you ever wonder if you’re getting a little too into this? The world is full of authors and actors and researchers who have been sucked into the abyss of whatever dark knowledge they were pursuing. They chased the whale, and the whale took them down into the depths of the sea.

I enjoy writing this blog. It’s therapeutic, in a way. I want it to be somewhere people can come to and say, “Oh, I’ve experienced that before!”, and know they are not alone. Eventually, though, I would like to offer the occasional story of how I’ve overcome something or some accomplishment I can celebrate or some tip I can pass on to someone else. Not that I haven’t done that here before, but those types of postings have been few and far between. I suffer from depression, and I know it. I just wonder sometimes if I am a little too comfortable in that knowledge.

Maybe the point of Moby Dick was to show that Captain Ahab literally could not live without his arch nemesis in his life. He could not exist without the pursuit of his enemy. One has to wonder if Ahab had managed to kill the whale cleanly and live if he would have been any happier. Some days, I feel as if I am chasing that same whale, and I wonder if the pursuit is worth it. And I wonder if I can live without it.

The System

In college basketball-crazed Kentucky, being a fan of the NBA makes me something of an anomaly. Most of the time when I mention I like professional basketball, the responses will almost always be the same…

“They don’t play any defense.”

“It’s a thug league.”

“Too much one-on-one basketball.”

“I don’t have time to follow it.”

Almost all of those assumptions are untrue. Defense in the NBA is actually pretty intense on most nights. Yes, there may be some thugs, but show me any professional sport that doesn’t have its share of bad apples (I’m looking at you, NFL.). There are some isolation plays, but no more than you would see in the average college game these days. And with the internet, apps, and 24-hour sports television, a person can basically be a follower of any sport they want.

san-antonio-spursTo me, the best example of how entertaining the game of professional basketball can be is the San Antonio Spurs. Granted, the Spurs have not quite been the juggernaut they were in the NBA Finals last June when they were steamrolling the Miami Heat, but they do still possess the sixth-best record in the loaded Western Conference this season. But, my goodness, the Finals! I don’t know that I have ever seen a basketball team, professional or otherwise, share the ball like the Spurs did in that series. It was a beautiful thing to watch.

I had a chance to watch the Spurs play the Chicago Bulls today on ABC, and I was reminded of that series. In addition to the ball movement, though, I remembered another thing that always amazes me about the Spurs – the way they can fit nearly any player into their structure and turn him into a valuable part of the team. I’m not saying players like Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, and Patrick Mills aren’t talented, but would they have the kind of impact on another team that they do for the Spurs? It’s difficult for me to imagine they would.

Even though I feel like the term is overused these days, the Spurs certainly posses a “system” of some sort. Everyone seems to know their roles. They seem to get along with one another. They don’t mind taking a backseat to each other. They don’t appear to be selfish. And despite the fact that they’re getting older (by NBA player standards), they keep on winning. Whatever the system is in San Antonio, it works.

I’ve wondered for years how certain people can be total failures in one place and then go on to success somewhere else. I think maybe my bewilderment stems from never quite feeling like I fit in. Everyone has weaknesses, everyone has flaws, everyone has strengths, and everyone has areas they excel in more than others. Somewhere inside me, I’ve always felt I work better as a part of a team, drawing upon the strengths of others to make up for where I am lacking. I have been looking for a system.

There are definitely times when we are forced to stand on our own. For instance, being a writer forces you to put yourself out there in a very individual kind of way. Even outside of work-type situations, though, there is a system somewhere we’re all looking to plug into. It may be a lifestyle regiment to bolster us. It may be a support network of friends. It may be a regular routine of giving. Whatever it may be, it involves accentuating strengths and reducing weaknesses. It reduces selfishness. Most of all, though, it wins.

I haven’t found my system yet. I’ve caught little glimpses of here it here and there, but it never seems to last. I either break it down myself or someone or something else does along the way. When I see a system working, though, it gives me hope that the right one is out there for me somewhere. It may take me a while longer yet to discover. Even the Spurs weren’t always the way they are now, and they don’t win a championship every year. A system that works, though, is a winner every time, if you ask me.

Epilogue

I like books. I don’t mean I just like reading books. I mean I like books. It just feels wrong to me to read a book off of a computer screen. I like to turn the pages. I like to feel it in my hands. I like to find some odd piece of scrap paper or some random bookmark to hold my place until I can start reading again. I like to see books sitting on my bookshelf, whether I actually read them or not.

Because of this, I love to randomly cruise bookstores. I hardly ever buy anything. It’s odd. I can watch a movie multiple times and not get tired of it, but once I finish a book, well, I’ve finished it. I don’t pick it up and read it again. Nevertheless, I still like to rummage through bookstores, and occasionally I will actually spend a little money on something to read.

beyond beliefOne of my purchases last year was Josh Hamilton’s autobiography Beyond Belief. The book had been out for several years, so I was able to snag it cheap at the local Books-A-Million. Hamilton was still a member of the Texas Rangers when the book was published, before he signed a mega-deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2012. I had a little money with me and had always wanted to read it, so I bought the paperback edition.

By now, even non-baseball fans know Hamilton’s story of being a five-tool prospect to bottomed-out drug and alcohol addict who was booted out of baseball completely to born-again Christian who rose from the ashes of his own story to return to the major leagues and become a star player. It is a truly inspiring story, a light of hope for anyone who has ever sank to the depths of addiction and wondered if they could ever recover again.

On the left side of the book’s cover, there is a small, red circle. Typed in white letters are the words “Includes a New Chapter Updating Josh’s Journey.” This update comes in the form of an epilogue added to the end of the book. In the epilogue, Hamilton and his wife, Katie, recount his 2009 relapse, during which he was photographed shirtless in an Arizona bar with several women.

Unfortunately, the events described in that epilogue would not represent the last time Hamilton would relapse. Major League Baseball officials are currently debating whether or not to suspend Hamilton for admitting to abusing alcohol and cocaine this past February. At issue is whether the incident constitutes a violation of the drug treatment Hamilton was required to be a part of to be reinstated to baseball in 2006. He could be facing up to a year’s suspension from the game.

We Christians love heroes. We love to celebrate stories of recovery, and we love to push those who have those stories out in front of the crowd. When one of them falls, the public fallout can be vicious. Christians and non-Christians get angry. At the heart of their anger is this: That person claimed to be one thing and turned out to be another.

Obviously, Hamilton’s latest relapse is a stark reminder to Christians everywhere that no one is above a fall from grace. It is also a reminder of why people become Christians in the first place. We’re going to get it wrong. We’re going to stumble from time to time. Sometimes we may not even be stumbling; we may just want to leave the narrow way for a while. Whatever the case may be, we are not going to be perfect.

A greater issue to me, though, is the point I mentioned earlier about the image Christians attach today to their heroes. Barnabas Piper wrote the following words in article for WORLD Magazine:

Christians often try too hard to find heroes. There is a distinct difference between appreciating someone’s story of redemption and making them a poster boy of faith. In doing so we put the emphasis on their lives and their works, and take it off of God’s grace. Grace is the differentiating characteristic between Christianity and every other religion, and when we downplay it we actually lose our witness. So how do we respond when one of our heroes relapses? We see ourselves in it and recognize the universal, deep need for God’s grace. This is what sets us apart and it’s what Josh Hamilton (and you) need now.

I remember talking with a friend once about this particular issue. I told him I thought it was interesting that all of the Christian testimonies I hear are from people who have totally overcome their issues. Wouldn’t it be odd, I asked, to hear a speaker say that they were still struggling with sin? No one would want to hear that, even though it would be totally identifiable for scores of people. People forget that Josh Hamilton had to be accompanied by a handler everywhere he went, couldn’t have cash on him, and had to submit to weekly urine tests to keep his job. It’s not like he was an addict and walked away scot-free. That seemed to be how we all wanted to view him, though.

There could always be an epilogue to anyone’s inspiring story. King David did a lot of wonderful things … then he saw a woman bathing on her roof. Noah was the only righteous man on Earth … then he got drunk. Hamilton’s story continued after the epilogue. Everyone’s does, even if they fall a thousand more times. Whatever Hamilton’s ultimate punishment may be, the grace that saved him will always be there. Just like it is for the rest of us.

Thank You Very Much

It has been brought to my attention lately that I have difficulty taking compliments.

I’m not really sure when this began, but at some point in life I developed a talent for dismissing nice things that were said about me. It went beyond simply having a sense of low self-esteem; it descended into a full-blown lack of trust for my fellow human beings. Of course, one could logically point out that the second point doubles back on the first, with the lack of trust actually stemming from having such low self-esteem I couldn’t believe anyone could genuinely believe such nice things about me.

It doesn’t really matter what the reason was. Even though I craved positive affirmation, I could never take a compliment cleanly.

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Two instances in the past two months have made this abundantly clear about me, and the ironic thing is they both involved the one thing in life I am actually confident in – my ability as a writer. I write a short column each month for the monthly newsletter at the radio station I work for. For some reason, writing it the past two months has been nothing short of maddening. At one point, while writing last month’s column, I literally reared back in my chair and hit my head against the wall behind me. I submitted something for publication each month, but I wasn’t happy with what I had produced.

Shortly after I had submitted last month’s entry, one of my co-workers complimented me on what I had written. In fact, I think he even used the word “perfect,” and if you knew how loathe I am to mention that, you would realize I didn’t drop that word in to brag on myself. I almost immediately countered his compliment by telling him how much I hated what I had written and how much of a struggle it had been to even finish it. I also figured he was just trying to puff me up, since he and I had discussed my self-esteem issues before.

Earlier this week, another co-worker actually called me from home after getting off work to tell me he had just read what I had written for this month’s newsletter. He was very effusive in his praise, telling me how what I had written was powerful, beautiful, and poetic. He may have even used the words “nailed it” at one point. Since I wasn’t that crazy about this month’s entry either, I again launched into an explanation of how difficult it had been to write and how I wasn’t happy with it. In this instance, I figured his praise was an instance of someone trying to kiss up to me, since I am technically his boss.

We’ve had a couple of snowstorms in the past few weeks, and I have been able to spend some time at home just doing this – writing. Today was one of those days. I set up my laptop on the kitchen table and did what a great many writers spend significant amounts of time doing – staring blankly into space. For some reason, as I sat there, those compliments I described came into my head. I wondered, “What if they really meant what they were saying? What if I really did do as good a job as they were saying?”

So I’m going to try to do a better job of accepting compliments. I’m going to try to just say “thank you” more often. I’m going to try to stop questioning people’s motives when they say nice things about me. I’m going to try to not look at the floor when someone talks to me about something they think I did well. I’m going to try to not point out all the mistakes I made when someone tells me I did a good job.

Just as I didn’t realize when I stopped accepting compliments at face value, I probably won’t realize when I eventually do. That would be fine with me, though. I’ve been too self-aware for too long now anyway. And if you agree with that last statement, I will just say “thank you” and move on…

Envy & Us

Yesterday, I wrote about how depression can cause people to become very selfish and unsupportive. I only sort of hinted at what can cause this type of behavior, though, probably because I didn’t want to admit I had it hiding in myself, too.

It’s envy.

Here is a comment a friend of mine left on Facebook after I posted a link to yesterday’s post there: “But what’s worse for me? It brings me down even further knowing that I have those selfish feelings. It is an evil cycle.” The word cycle is one that can be used often in the life of a depressed person. It basically means there are feelings that beget feelings that beget feelings… It’s almost like building blocks.

facebook depressionSpeaking of Facebook, the news world was abuzz this week concerning a study by University of Missouri researchers published in Computers in Human Behavior which linked use of the social media site to feelings of depression. Specifically, researchers discovered a link between Facebook use and envy. The problem seems to stem primarily from people perusing other people’s pages rather than participating in the more community/social aspects of the site.

Why is this a problem? Well, just browsing over a person’s profile is not going to produce an accurate representation of that person as a whole. We all want to put our best foot forward in the public eye, so all of our pictures are going to be smiling and happy; none of our posts will expose our darkest secrets; and we will do our best to appear busy, confident, productive, and happy. Without a component of human interaction, why wouldn’t we all think everyone else has a better life than we do?

Interpersonal relationships often yield surprising results. They let us know that other people are just as vulnerable, just as scared, and just as apprehensive about certain things as we are. Facebook, as a whole, can yield some incredibly positive experiences. It can reunite old friends, deepen relationships, even lessen the symptoms of depression in some instances. The problem isn’t with social media; it’s with us.

We get jealous and envious of those who seem to have it better than we do. We perpetrate a false image of ourselves to the world because we are convinced no one would accept the real us. We turn away from those who actually are honest about their struggles because they make us uncomfortable. All social media has done is just give the already-envious people within us the chance to step out onto the stage a little more.

The great irony of a site like Facebook is that it is ultimately antisocial at its core. It is designed to allow us to communicate with others without having to spend actual, physical time with them. A survey such as this one is exactly right and exactly wrong at the same time. It is highly accurate in connecting social media use to intense feelings of envy and depression. It falls short in painting Facebook as the villain. The enemy, as they say, is us.

Tuneful Tuesday: Don’t Fade

Depression is a selfish disease. It makes those who suffer from it focus nearly entirely on themselves and their pain. That’s why counselors will often suggest doing things for others as an activity to bring people out of depression. It takes a person’s focus and turns in inward, where there is nothing but the heaviness of the affliction.

This type of selfishness can manifest itself even in relationships between depressed people. Let’s say two depressives meet and form a relationship. They may initially be very encouraging of one another, rooting for the other to improve. It is a very beautiful type of relationship … until one of them actually starts to get better. Feelings of jealousy and abandonment can follow.

No one wants to be alone, no matter how inwardly focused they are.

The song “Don’t Fade,” by Toad the Wet Sprocket, seems to be dealing with a few different things. There is obviously a struggle of some sort between a couple. Any song with the lyric “How could you forsake the love of God that way is clearly dealing with some heavy subject matter. One particular line of the chorus always stood out to me, though.

“Don’t fade. Stay in here with me.”

The selfish part of the depressive in me has thought these words more than once. I have seen friends shed stress and anxiety and unhappiness and felt the sting of feeling as if I will never get any better and that they are leaving me. I have been jealous of their new-found happiness and comforted by their setbacks. I have not been a good friend because I could not – or would not – take the focus off myself. I wanted them all to stay in here with me.

I’m working to become a better cheerleader for people I know who are struggling. I’m trying to share in their joy and applaud their successes. I really do want them to get better. I really want to get better.

I still want you to stay in here with me. Maybe we should move where “here” is, though.